SEALs got bin Laden, but the media…

By Daniel Meltzer | “Bad money drives out good money,” they say. Many believe there is no such thing as bad money. Take your pick.

The same, unfortunately, can be said about journalism, that the bad can bury the good.

Like many, I watched President Obama’s East Room announcement the night American commandos had killed arch terrorism capo Osama bin Laden. The street outside the White House gates, Ground Zero, Times Square and other gathering places immediately became filled with what appeared to be spillover (or swill-over) from a nationwide boozy frat party. Virtually every reveler seemed to be in his or her early twenties, celebrating the bloodshed and chanting the jingoistic jingle, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!…” Virtually no network anchorperson, or “reporter on the scene” for that matter, questioned the giddy, celebratory atmosphere.

It was described at the anchor desks and “on the ground” as an understandable release of pent-up fears and anxiety that had haunted the celebrants’ waking and sleeping hours for years, regardless of the fact that seemingly none of the youthful revelers could have been more than 12 or 13 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed, killing nearly 3,000 people, and eventually leading us into two deadly, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter nation, in fact, having had nothing to do with the dastardly deeds of 9/11.

The site of the Navy SEALs’ daring raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2 was repeatedly characterized as a luxurious, “million dollar house.” To anyone’s eye it was, in fact, an architectural mess — a white concrete box on a box with practically no windows, surrounded by high concrete walls with pealing paint and barbed wire. A habitable two-bedroom apartment in a reasonable Manhattan neighborhood can cost a million dollars (barbed wire extra). We were told at first that bin Laden was shielded from view by the 7-foot concrete walls around the property and also around the terrace outside his bedroom, where he would come out for air a few minutes each day, and then that he had not left his bedroom at all since the day he had moved in more than five years ago. This sounds more like a prison than a “million dollar mansion” to me.

And then we were told that bin Laden was killed “after a firefight,” while brandishing a weapon and shielding himself behind a woman, perhaps his wife — information which turned out not to be true, but which had been quickly disseminated nonetheless, with no skeptical double-checking by a ravenous news establishment. So, was it a shoot-to-kill operation from the get-go? Or was bin Laden to be captured, as we were told, if at all possible? It seems to have been possible, but the answer is still unclear. It recalls, with far more perilous consequences, the “Jim Brady is dead / Jim Brady is not dead” gaffe in the rush to be first with news of any kind at the time of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

President Obama has decided that the photograph taken of a bloodied corpse of bin Laden with a bullet hole in his forehead is too gruesome to be shown to the public. Was no photo taken after his body was reportedly cleaned for a proper Muslim funeral and before his burial at sea? If not, why not?

I am impressed by all the intelligence people and courageous military personnel who undertook this difficult and dangerous enterprise. We can only hope it represents a major setback for Al Qaeda. I am equally impressed by President Obama’s having accomplished what George W. Bush could not. I want our government to protect us, but I also want it to be honest.

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) We hear it quoted often enough but the sad question is — Are we really getting the truth…and if not, then can we really say, then, that we are free?

The rowdy kids waving beer cans and chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!…” were a national embarrassment, a demonstration that, perhaps, an entire generation is getting it wrong, and that the reporters who watched and didn’t have the courage to say so let us down. The TV anchors called it an understandable outburst of “patriotism,” something that Samuel Johnson, in 1775, called “the last resort of a scoundrel.”

And that, sadly, is the news.

Meltzer is a playwright and a former senior writer for CBS News

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